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Why frontline worker needs are different

A message in a bottle on the beach, touched by the sea.

Why frontline worker needs are different

When forming your strategy for digital tools, whether an intranet, employee mobile app, or other employee service, it’s important to consider all users’ needs. Frontline users, who work away from desks, perhaps without company devices, and / or in remote locations, pose tricky challenges when trying to reach, engage, and digitally serve them.

Frontline worker needs and challenges are greater in volume and more complex in nature than those of desk workers. When you also consider that in the UK nearly 70% of full-time workers are in an industry with a large proportion of frontline workers, it’s apparent these challenges need to be addressed thoroughly. During our research into employee mobile app products, we identified eight common challenges that are applicable whether the user is a lorry driver, chef, retail assistant, doctor, and so on.

Shared devices (if supplied at all)

Some businesses may share one device between a few users, such as a ‘kiosk’ computer, for perceived ease and to save costs. This often means content can’t be targeted to individuals, as they don’t log in with their personal details. Being infrequent users, there’s little chance they can keep up with all the internal communications that office workers would see.

Another example is digital screens; during break times these can feel intrusive because the choice to engage has been removed, and 64% of frontline workers have said that digital screens aren’t informative, accurate, useful, or interesting.

Solutions: A mobile-first approach would resolve most of these issues, where frontline workers use their own device to access digital tools. A ‘BYOD’ policy removes the initial outlay and ongoing maintenance costs of company devices, as well as providing a familiar UX to ease adoption.

Part time, seasonal or temporary contracts

Delivery via moped.

Not all frontline workers are full time, permanent members of staff. It can therefore be harder to engage them with company news and activities, as they may see their employment in your business as fleeting. So, is the cost of setting them up with licences worth it? For example:

  • There is a financial implication with setting all employees up with a Microsoft licence
  • There is an administrative cost, as those accounts have to be maintained
  • Finally, the practical cost – will they really need that company email address or want to create something in Sway?

If they do get these licences, what happens if they use them outside of working hours? Many countries have laws in place that mean companies have to pay staff for accessing tools outside of contracted hours, so, strangely, making tools readily available comes with its own challenge.

Solutions: Platform costs vary from vendor to vendor, but often a non-Microsoft approach will be cheaper. For those accessing outside of contracted hours, some apps can ringfence a geolocation so that access is only possible within that location. Alternatively, apps can offer a feature where users have to acknowledge that they won’t be paid for accessing the platform outside of working hours.


Shift work

Shift patterns mean that the frontline don’t always work at the same time as their colleagues, making handovers and cross-shift communications important. Central support office teams may also work at different times, making them seem ‘out of step’ with the frontline as a result. Outside of work, being able to ‘switch off’ from a communications channel is also important; for example, a nurse working a night shift should be able to stop notifications during the hours they’re asleep.

Solutions: Shift managers can support the dissemination of news and information through shift team briefings, so being able to target them as a dedicated audience is vital. Practical tools, such as shift handover checklists, will always be appreciated as they provide real-world benefits that often simplify or clarify processes. Finally, apps allow users to set ‘do not disturb’ periods so that notifications are held back until the user is ready to absorb them.

Not necessarily on a central database

It’s likely that frontline workers are on a payroll system, but there can be multiple payroll systems within one business. Then, if they are on a central or local payroll system, there’s no guarantee their personal mobile number and / or email address is stored. While a line manager may hold that information, the frontline worker may not be comfortable with it being stored or used centrally.

Solutions: We have been impressed by the approaches app vendors take to getting people onto the platform, without the need to gather user data first. While many will integrate with Active Directory or an HR system, they also offer paper QR codes, onboarding via text message, or ways for line managers to simply grant access via their own account.

Skilled in non-digital areas

Frontline workers are skilled and knowledgeable, but most of their attention is on offline or non-digital tasks. Any system interface with a steep learning curve is going to be off putting; any system for frontline workers needs to offer simple access to relevant information and actions, that directly help the job at hand.

Solutions: Users need a reason to access the tool, which is unlikely to be solely for corporate news or just to complete an annual staff survey (although important, the purpose can sometimes be lost for these users). Practical features, such as shift swapping, payslips (with ongoing calculation rather than updating once a month), or simplified processes (electronic rather than paper forms), will offer the hooks to draw them in and then encourage them to engage with other types of content.

Time poor

Everyone’s busy but frontline workers are time poor in other ways too:

  • Often there is a defined pattern of working and breaks that frontline workers have to adhere to, for legal as well as comfort reasons
  • Workers are often supervised and the work revolves around time sensitive, physically demanding, and repetitive tasks, which means they can’t stop halfway through to read the latest piece of company news.

Solutions: As previously mentioned, frontline workers need real reasons to access any sort of digital tool. These reasons will likely benefit them as an individual, inside and / or outside of the workplace.

Need to pay attention to their surroundings

Construction worker with plans.

Frontline workers are often vigilantly attentive, meaning they can’t always pause to immediately check a notification. They might be directly serving customers or operating machinery or in a hazardous environment. Even in a well-run warehouse, individuals have to be aware of forklift trucks, moving machinery, trip hazards, and maybe chemicals.

Solutions: Frontline workers need to be able to dip in and out of a tool quickly and easily. The search feature needs to work well, the platform needs to be easy to browse, and content should be easy to use / digest.

Internet connection isn’t always available

Here are three examples of how this can impact frontline workers:

  • An engineer in the middle of nowhere is unlikely to have a strong mobile signal for access to the intranet
  • A retail assistant in a basement room of a concrete shopping centre may struggle with access, even if the company provides wifi
  • If using their own device, a person might have concerns about spending their own data. 

Solutions: A facility to receive and manage notifications will help users keep on top of platform activities, without feeling overwhelmed. Additionally, employee apps often work with low bandwidth, plus support offline and / or in-app reading (rather than downloading documents).

What these challenges mean

The complexity and volume of frontline worker needs mean that considerations for digital tools should be skewed in their favour.

A seesaw, weighted down on the frontline workers side.
The nature of frontline workers’ jobs means that platform requirements should be skewed in their favour.

Desk workers

  • Digitally literate
  • Need frequent access to business systems
  • Company supplied devices
  • Company email address
  • Work with larger screens.

Frontline workers

  • Not necessarily digitally literate
  • Need infrequent access to business systems
  • Minimal access to work devices
  • Unlikely to frequently check email
  • Cost of licences Vs usage rate could be an issue
  • Work shift hours
  • Time poor – speed and simplicity key.

This skew is likely to mean that a mobile product will best serve their needs, as well as the needs of different areas of the business. The mobile approach could be served by a dedicated employee mobile app product or by an app version of an intranet. However, we have found that employee mobile app products are lighter and leaner than app versions of intranets. They have been built from a true mobile first perspective and therefore are designed to serve mobile and frontline worker needs.

Suzie Robinson

I've always worked with intranets, and have practical experience with all aspects of intranet management, including research, implementation, governance, and strategy. My roots are in internal communication and I focus on employee experience and engagement.

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